Friday, August 28, 2015

Desks and Dialogue

By Rebecca Kurtz

On a visit to Schuyler Mansion, before so much as stepping foot into the Revolutionary General’s historic home, you find yourself in the Visitor’s Center. The building that now serves as the Visitor’s Center was constructed in 1917, the same year that the mansion became a State Historic Site, as a caretaker’s cottage.
                When historic homes were first established as state sites, they did not utilize tour guides and historians as we do today. Instead, a caretaker would live on the grounds of these sites, free of charge, serving as both docents and security. This practice was discontinued at the majority of sites, and most caretaker’s cottages were modified to serve other purposes. The cottage at Schuyler Mansion was no exception and, in the 1970’s, it was converted into the Visitor’s Center that we have today.
The old desk in the Visitor's Center 
Now that our Visitor’s Center is over forty years old, it has become evident that it is need of some updates. Within the past year, the first of many improvements to the visitor’s center was completed; the construction of a new desk! Prior to the installation of our new and improved desk, the Schuyler Mansion staff had only a small desk that faced the entrance to the Visitor’s Center, and was separated from the exhibits on three sides by a wall, a door, and the staircase to the upstairs offices. The desk had only enough room for a register and some cabinets for books, and its design did not allow for adequate display of any gift shop items that were for sale.

                The new desk in the Visitor’s Center is the solution to all of those flaws! The desk is rounded in shape, and faces both the front door and the exhibits, which was made possible by removing the walls that separated the old desk from the rest of the Visitor’s Center. This new design allows for employees to interact more freely with guests who are viewing the exhibits, and to answer their questions. Additionally, the new desk features display cases, so that guests can see the merchandise that the museum has available.
                This desk was designed specifically for Schuyler Mansion’s Visitor’s Center by John Schulz and Anna Curtis, museum exhibit specialists for the New York State Department of Parks and Recreation. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview them about their work on Schuyler Mansion’s new desk:

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your job title? How long have you been doing this? What do you enjoy about your job?

JS: My title is Museum Exhibit Specialist 2. I’ve been with the state for 8 years and doing more or less the same sort of things for about 30 years before that. I enjoy figuring things out so that many pieces come together in the end like a big puzzle.

AC: I have worked for NYS Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation at Peebles Island State Park for 10 years. Currently and for the past 7 months, I have held the title of an Exhibit’s Specialist 1. Prior to this positions, I held the title of an exhibit’s finisher for 9 ½ years. What I enjoy most about my job is installation of the finished product. I love being a part of the process of educating our visitors in New York State history.

Construction in the Visitor's Center

Q: How did the needs of Schuyler Mansion influence the way in which you chose to build the desk? (need for displays, etc)?

JS: It’s all about the needs. That’s where the process starts, and in the end, if you build something that looks good but doesn’t function as needed, it’s not a success.

AC: I was not part of the initial planning of the retail counter. However, after working in the business of exhibit design for 10 years I am very familiar with the needs of our Historic Sites.  Schuyler Mansion had been lacking a proper gift shop and greeting area in the small space that had been allotted.  John’s, beautiful design has provided a duel functioning retail counter that grants the Visitor Center adequate space to not only greet our visitors but to offer mementos of their visit. 

Q: What factors led to the decision to construct the desk in this particular shape?

JS: The “L” shape gives you the most linear footage within the space.  I don’t remember who suggested the curve, but I’ve done others.  It’s a more pleasing shape.

AC: After the removal of the wall, Heidi (our site director) felt that having a counter that wrapped around the stairway was essential to keep visitors from roaming upstairs.  The addition of the glass was intended to have special mementos along with outer shelving to allow for books, all for the sole purpose of resale.
The wall is removed to make room for the new desk

Q: What did staff members at the Mansion tell you they wanted to see in the new desk, and how is that reflected in the finished product?

JS: We discussed function from both the visitors’ side –displaying merchandise, and the staff side – storage.  I tried to divide the space to suit as many different things as reasonable.  Heidi and Michelle were part of the process the whole way and nothing was done without their approval.  It was pretty much all their ideas.

AC: As far as I know, John’s design mimicked the wants and needs of the staff members.  I came into the picture when we were deciding on the color of the retail counter.  The retail counter is such a prominent piece within the Visitor Center and with the upcoming exhibit we needed to choose the stain color of not only the counter but of the new exhibit that will be installed in spring of 2017.

Q: Have you done this or other building projects for historic sites in the past? If so, how was Schuyler Mansion similar/ different from other experiences that you’ve had?

JS: All I do is one project after another.  Each one is different yet they all have similarities.  They all start with a particular need and desired style or look.  Sometimes I’m given a plan that a designer has already worked out with the client, and sometimes I do it myself.  Once I know what I need to end up with, I figure out the parts and assembly sequence.  It all becomes a formula in a way, but each has its’ own challenges.

AC: As said before I have worked in this field for a number of years.  We install several exhibits throughout New York State each year.  However, the retail desk was a bit different.  Normally we install all elements of an exhibition area at the same time.  By designing, building, and finishing the retail counter so early locked us into a particular design for the entire exhibit that has not been built yet.

Schuyler Mansion employee, Ian Mumpton, perfectly sums up the site staff’s satisfaction with John and Anna’s finished product, saying: “The new desk is great. It looks nice and it makes the Visitor’s Center much more welcoming. Even when I’m behind the desk ringing people in or pulling out pamphlets, I can interact with visitors who have questions while they explore the displays.”

So, on your next excursion to Schuyler Mansion, take some time to explore our Visitor’s Center, and see the new desk for yourself! In the meantime, don't forget to follow our blog by clicking the 'subscribe' button below!
Mansion employee, Ian Mumpton, behind the new desk


  1. That Visitors Center was at one time where the caretaker and his wife lived.
    I knew them both growing up. First there was Mr. Grey and when he retired Mr. Campbell took over.....

  2. Very true! The building was built in the Nineteen-teens as a Caretaker's cottage. Its' very first residents were the McMath family who, with their three daughters, lived on premises from 1917 until the end of World War II. Since the building itself is more than 100 years old, it has begun to accrue it's own history!